NFL Week 3: ‘This is not unexpected’

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Gail Burton | Associated Press

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) throws under pressure by Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Pernell McPhee (90) during the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, in Baltimore.

James Krause, Columnist

When the Tampa Bay Lightning lifted Lord Stanley’s Cup after a six-game series win over the Dallas Stars on Monday, my first thought was “and nobody died”.

There was and still is such a whirlwind of changing information about COVID-19 when the National Hockey League and other sports leagues announced plans to return around the beginning of summer that a genuine concern was people dying from illness for the sake of a sport.

Now months later, protocols from the major North American sports leagues and continuously clean COVID-19 reports have quenched some of the fear of players getting terribly ill. 

The NHL will go down as the first of the major North American sports leagues to crown a champion with the NBA and MLB to follow in October. Football, both college and pro, will try to make it to 2021 and give out their trophies. So far, they’ve struggled to stay upright.

Even with several conferences yet to play, 23 college football games have been postponed or canceled due to COVID-19. The University of Houston has had three separate season openers canceled or delayed due to positive COVID-19 tests of other teams. 

The University of Notre Dame football team announced Monday that a breakout among the team has put 39 people in isolation or quarantine, according to USA Today.

Now, the NFL has its first big COVID-19 scare.

Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans, is shown Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. The Titans suspended in-person activities through Friday after the NFL says three Titans players and five personnel tested positive for the coronavirus, becoming the first COVID-19 outbreak of the NFL season in Week 4. (Mark Humphrey | Associated Press) 

With three players and five staff members testing positive for COVID-19, the Tennessee Titans have shut down their facilities until Saturday at the earliest. As a result, their contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday has been postponed.

“This is not unexpected,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a Tuesday memo to league executives obtained by ESPN. “There will be players and staff who will test positive during the season.”

The issues being faced in college football, and now the NFL, get to the root of the problem for all sports in the COVID-19 era. Testing can only tell you if players and coaches are sick, but how can you stop them from getting sick?

When I interviewed Athletic Director Sean Frazier in August about the Mid-American Conference’s decision to postpone fall football, it was a point he brought up.

“We know for a fact we can’t control COVID,” Frazier said. “We can test but we can’t stop it.”

Now with four rapid tests a week for players and coaches in the MAC, that tone seemed shifted for Frazier, but his main issue is still not addressed. We aren’t stopping COVID-19 by testing more, we’re just knowing who has it faster. We can isolate it, but what good does isolation do if you’re like Notre Dame and dozens of players have it? 

It only took eight people for the Titans to close their facilities, and now the integrity of the season is on thin ice. If the Titans and Steelers don’t end up playing their game this week, will they make it up at all? 

What punishments are in place for those who don’t follow protocol? Coaches are fined for not wearing masks on the sidelines at games, but ESPN reported Wednesday now the league is threatening draft picks and potential bans for not wearing them on the sideline. Are we just making up punishments as we go? (It’s the NFL, so the answer is likely ‘yes.’)

All of these questions have been addressed by the other major sports leagues. The NHL, NBA and MLB all came up with plans of attack for testing COVID-19, enforcing protocols, and how adjustments are made in reaction to positive tests. It wasn’t always pretty, but now they’re all reaping the benefits of having a plan.

It’s October, and the disordered structures of power in college football and the NFL are still trying to figure it out. By the time winter hits, the fans or COVID-19, may have to make their decisions for them.

 

Ravens fail to get over the Chiefs, Mahomes hump again on Monday Night

The Baltimore Ravens may be one of the best teams in the NFL, but one thing they are not good at is playing catch up.

The Ravens never led against the Kansas City Chiefs in their Monday night contest, seeming stuck in gear offensively while the Chiefs sped off to a 17-point halftime advantage and an eventual 34-20 win.

A kickoff return touchdown by Devin Duvernay was the Ravens’ only time reaching the end zone until the fourth quarter, with three punts and a fumble in the first half.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson, who threw for a career-low 97 yards, got very little help from his playmakers with tight end Mark Andrews and wide receiver Marquise Brown dropping tons of passes. The two combined for five catches on 14 targets. The offensive line didn’t deliver much help for an edge blitzing attack from Kansas City.

The team you don’t want to struggle to score against the most is probably the Chiefs, who continue to look borderline unfair at times offensively. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw four touchdowns, rushed for another and was never sacked. 

After an off-game against the Chargers in week two, the Chiefs made beating one of the best defenses in the league look like child’s play.

 

Seahawks show cracks, but Wilson too much for Cowboys

Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks kept cooking in week three, but not without the Cowboys creating problems for them and showing some weaknesses.

The Cowboys sacked Wilson four times and struggled in keeping up with the relentless passing attack of quarterback Dak Prescott in the second half. Prescott threw for a career-high 472 yards and 57 passing attempts, but also was credited with all three Dallas turnovers.

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson passes against the Dallas Cowboys during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson | Associated Press)

After blowing an easy touchdown in the first half with a fumble, receiver D.K. Metcalf caught the go-ahead touchdown for Seattle with 1:47 left. It was Wilson’s fifth touchdown of the day and led to a 38-31 win for the Seahawks.

Seattle comes away 3-0 but with their biggest flaw exposed. Through three games, the Seahawks have given up an average of 430 passing yards. Atlanta is the only team in the same ballpark, allowing 350 yards on average. The secondary being beat with deep passes is what’s making winning games a challenge despite Wilson playing the best games of his career.

On top of the struggles in the secondary, now Seattle will head into their week four game against the Miami Dolphins with safety Jamal Adams and running back Chris Carson questionable. 

 

Packers make another case for Super Bowl contention without Adams

Quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers and Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints had to figure out a plan of attack without their top receiving targets on Sunday.

The Packers came out better in a 37-30 win, with Rodgers finding his supporting cast that carried the load for the injured Davonte Adams. The Saints hung with the Packers all night, but a fumble by swiss army knife Taysom Hill set up a Packers field goal that gave them the lead for good.

Rodgers and Brees ended the game with virtually identical statlines, both throwing for just over 280 passing yards and three touchdowns each. How they got it was very different and showed the different directions the teams were taking to their offense.

Green Bay Packers tight end Robert Tonyan (85) reacts after Green Bay recovered an onside kick to effectively seal their win in the second half of an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020. Green Bay won 37-30. (Butch Dill | Associated Press)

The Packers were able to spread the Saints defense, with Rodgers connecting with receiver Allen Lazard over the top secondary and his tight ends Robert Tonyan and Jace Sternberger underneath.

Brees on the other hand, struggling early in the season with his normally automatic deep throw accuracy, opted to dump the ball down to running back Alvin Kamara and let him make plays in space. 

It proved to be wildly effective as Kamara ended the game with 197 scrimmage yards and two receiving touchdowns. While their record may not show it, the Saints can still be a contender in the NFC even with a decline in ability for Brees. Now, the pressure is on Kamara to have these kinds of performances on a consistent basis.

 

Bears in better shape with Foles, complete another comeback

Two weeks after quarterback Mitchell Trubisky seemed to turn a corner in the second half against the Detroit Lions, his season turned right back in the other direction.

After an interception in the third quarter, Head Coach Matt Nagy had seen enough and swapped in the former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles. After a touchdown overruled and turned into an interception and two failed attempts to reach the endzone, it seemed the Bears were ready to throw in the towel.

Then, well, the Falcons happened.

Chicago Bears quarterback Nick Foles (9) works against the Atlanta Falcons during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson | Associated Press)

Leading by 16 entering the fourth quarter, the Falcons allowed three Bears touchdown passes from Foles and Atlanta’s offense failed to gain a first down in the last 10 minutes.

Atlanta went on to lose 30-26 in their second straight miserable, depressing, mind blowing fourth quarter lead. At this point, one might wonder if they have been cursed to endure 28-3 until the end of time.

Foles didn’t look his best at times during his second half stint, but Nagy clearly trusts him with more of his playbook than Trubisky at this point. Foles can still work the magic that won the Eagles a Super Bowl a few years ago. Somehow, someway, the Bears are among the six teams sitting at 3-0, but Foles alone won’t answer all of Chicago’s issues.

 

Bills hold off Rams comeback with help from pass interference call

Speaking of 28-3, the Buffalo Bills nearly opened their own pandora’s box of a blown lead Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. 

After a Stefon Diggs touchdown catch put the Bills up by 25 points, the Rams got their offense rolling with a rushing touchdown by Jared Goff.

Catching up with touchdown catches by Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, a rushing touchdown by Darrell Henderson put the Rams ahead 32-28 with 4:30 left.

The Bills were down to a fourth down and nine in the red zone when Darious Williams was flagged for pass interference on Diggs, who had spent most of the game being covered by cornerback Jalen Ramsey. The call, as dubious and debatable as it might have been, led to a touchdown pass from Josh Allen to tight end Tyler Kroft on the next play to take back the lead and the 35-32 win.